The Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) clinic in Colorado Springs, USA, provides cancer screening, STD tests and treatment, breast exams, contraception and abortion, mostly to women.
On 27 November an armed gunman entered the clinic, apparently walking calmly, and started a shooting attack that lasted five hours and led to the death of two people accompanying patients, a policeman trying to protect people inside, and injuries to 12 other people, five other police officers. No clinic staff were hurt. The man was reported to have muttered “no more baby parts” as police led him away after he was captured, yet in the two days after the attack, no one official acknowledged that recent attacks on Planned Parenthood were the likely incitement. Those attacks were based on falsification of information, which became sensationalized national news and led anti-abortion fanatics to seek to defund PPFA in many states and federally (all unsuccessfully but dragging out the media circus). This was an incitement to exactly this kind of violence.
The waiting room of the clinic was bustling when the first shot rang out. A medical assistant immediately recognized the sound and moved everyone to the back of the building, behind a locked door that separates the lobby from examination rooms, according to staff members. Once there, everyone scattered into rooms that also had locks and, following their training, turned their phones to silent to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Most of the people in the clinic waited out the five-hour ordeal in these locked rooms. Staff workers undergo regular training and drills for emergencies, such as an armed attack. But there were no dedicated “safe rooms” or special security measures in place.
Authorities said the assassin was armed with a long gun.As heavily armed police officers entered the clinic to hunt him down and rescue those trapped inside, they had the advantage that officers in the “command center” outside the clinic could tap into security cameras inside, watch the siege unfold and give precise instructions to officers inside, including when it was safe to rescue those trapped in the clinic.
“Abortion clinics need to take extraordinary security measures that aren’t necessary for other health care facilities,” said Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation, the professional society for clinics, doctors and hospitals that perform abortions. “That can include bulletproof glass and safe rooms, as well as cameras and lighting and security protocols. In Colorado Springs, the staff were well trained and saved a lot of lives.”
Planned Parenthood officials declined to discuss their security measures in any detail, but said the measures were extensive. The National Abortion Federation called for a special meeting in August of a standing Justice Department task force on violence against abortion clinics, Vicki Saporta said. For years, clinics have turned information about credible threats over to the task force, which includes the FBI and other law enforcement groups.
Since 1977, when more extreme elements in the anti-abortion movement began attacking clinics and personnel, eight doctors or staff members have been killed, according to the National Abortion Federation. There have been an additional 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 186 arson attacks and many thousands of violent threats or other illegal acts against abortion clinics.
FBI warned of planned attacks months ago
Security measures at many clinics have been strengthened in the five months since anti-abortion activists began attacking Planned Parenthood. An FBI intelligence bulletin went out to law enforcement agencies nationwide in September 2015 with that warning as Congress was debating calls by right-wing Republican senators to defund Planned Parenthood. The intelligence bulletin warned of “lone offenders using tactics of arsons and threats all of which are typical of the pro-life extremist movement.” And that was just what happened. The perceived level of threat differs according to location, but in some cases, clinic officials said, doctors have been provided with 24-hour armed guards.
In one incident in August, for example, someone poured gasoline on a New Orleans Planned Parenthood security guard’s car and set the vehicle on fire. According to the FBI, there was another incident in July in Aurora, Colorado, in which someone poured gasoline around the entrance of a Planned Parenthood facility, also causing a fire. On 1 October a fire at a California Planned Parenthood clinic was suspected as arson.
In New York City, the Police Department announced it was sending critical response vehicles to Planned Parenthood clinics throughout the city as a precaution, despite no known threats being made.By that time, there had already been nine criminal or suspicious incidents in seven states and in Washington, DC.
On 28 November, the New York state governor said the state would increase patrols at clinics around the state and would visit with staff members to discuss security, even in the absence of direct threats.
Even as they seek to forestall or mitigate attacks, clinics and their staff members try to keep security measures as unobtrusive as possible, hoping to preserve a warm and safe atmosphere for patients who are often already facing stress. “We’re still health care providers, and we want our patients to feel safe and welcome,” said one abortion doctor. Cecile Richards, president of PPFA, said on 28 November that the organization would not “back down because of protesters or violent extremists or anyone else”.
One resident of Colorado Springs was education programme manager for Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood’s southern region from 2003-2007. She also worked as an employee in a Minnesota Planned Parenthood from 1977-1979. At that time, she said it was normal to receive training about security measures to be taken in the event of an attack. In her time in Minnesota, the clinic was burned to the ground, rebuilt and later attacked with a pipe bomb.
Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountain Region’s president Vicki Cowart said: “We share the concerns of many Americans that the continued attacks against abortion providers and patients, as well as law enforcement officers, is creating a poisonous environment that breeds acts of violence. But we will never back away from providing critical health care to millions of people every day who rely on and trust us.”
Statements by President Obama and a few presidential hopefuls
Only the three Democratic presidential candidates made public statements the same or next day, all of which, unlike Obama’s on 28 November morning, included support for Planned Parenthood. None of the 14 Republican presidential candidates had made a statement the same day, and the next morning one called only for prayers for the victims and those who got the situation under control.
Obama during his presidency has had to address the nation following a mass shooting at least eight times. “Somehow, this has become routine,” he said. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. We become numb to this.” He also said there were enough guns floating around the country for every man, woman and child. Like many presidents before him, despite attempts he has been unable to remove any guns from the streets. But his failure to speak up for Planning Parenthood and women’s health care in this instance is highly disappointing.
Language and reporting: some observations
Vicki Cowart, president of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said in a statement that “extremists are creating a poisonous environment that feeds domestic terrorism in this country.” The wording was later changed, and a version issued in which “domestic terrorism” was replaced with “acts of violence”. This was noted in one media report but not explained. Perhaps US officialdom does not want to admit there is domestic terrorism in the USA, in spite of constant evidence.
Every article listed as a source below mentions the vicious hate campaign against Planned Parenthood by anti-abortion groups, yet almost every article reports something like this: “Planned Parenthood leadership has denied wrongdoing by its staff.” This is totally inaccurate. Planning Parenthood has proven beyond any doubt that there was absolutely no wrongdoing on their parts, in hearing after hearing across the USA. Is this kind of reporting a misconceived form of “neutrality”, as if journalists can never point out who is telling the truth and who is twisting it into blatant falsehoods? For whatever reasons, it is unethical. In this case, it aids the cause of the terrorists and fanatics who inspire them to target abortion providers and women.
In spite of his comment on “baby parts” and others against abortion, several sources noted that the assassin made many other hate statements to police and therefore the extent to which abortion played into his decision to target Planned Parenthood was not yet clear. But he chose Planned Parenthood for the attack. Does anyone really think he didn’t know where he was going or that it didn’t matter to him? Unlike Norway, where right-wing fanatical assassins are rightly identified not as mad but as evil, the US seems to want to hide its terrorists behind a veil of insanity.
And its main response after it happens? Not by the president calling on the justice system to launch a national investigation of those inciting and committing hate crimes against women and abortion providers, based on the FBI’s evidence – but with prayer.